Art-gallery visitors around the Pacific Northwest gasped with delight at the unique interplay of colors in the mirror-collage pieces designed by Gretchen Schauffler. And of course that was satisfying to Gretchen as an artist. But the stay-at-home mother of two also saw herself as an entrepreneur. And she didn’t know how to make the transition.
Then, in the mid-‘90s, “a customer asked me if I could ‘do for walls what I did for those art pieces’,” Gretchen recalls. “I figured I would give it a try.”
It took her awhile—and a few false steps—to really figure out how to harness her sense for color in the commercial medium of interior decorating. She wanted paint colors to fit a client’s personal taste, the natural features of a home and even the particulars of the surrounding area.
At first, as a “colors consultant,” Gretchen was actually painting interiors of homes herself! One time she got the job of painting an entire house, and she contracted out part of the work. The hired hand used the right color but chose a kind of paint that Gretchen didn’t recommend – and the client’s walls looked awful.
First Gretchen handed the contractor his head! Then she decided that the only way she could make sure the walls of a home truly reflected her artistic vision was to control every aspect of the paint that went on them. That meant she had to design and produce her own paint, and Devine Color was born.
Besides Gretchen’s designer touch, a marketing innovation also really helped Devine Color take off: the “mini-pouch.” You know how paint companies actually expect you to imagine what a color would look like on your wall by gazing at a mere postage-stamp-sized dry sample on a piece of cardboard? Gretchen thought it was crazy, too. So she filled Ziploc bags with enough of her own colors to cover several square feet of a wall.
“We changed the industry with that idea,” says Gretchen, whose company posted about $10 million in sales last year and now employs four people. “Ralph Lauren, Benjamin Moore and, really, the entire industry now have wet samples.”
Gretchen’s Key Move: Hitching Her Wagon to a Star
Gretchen’s company wasn’t going to grow beyond a mom operation if she was going to mix her own paint by hand – she would just continue to be an artist working on a different “canvas.” So she needed a manufacturer.
Her Key Move was to understand that the manufacturer couldn’t be just any old paint company. It had to be local, so that she could maintain proper control of her product line; it had to be reliable; and it had to treat her like a partner, not just a customer.
At first, Gretchen targeted a nearby company named Miller Paint as the perfect candidate, but its management “didn’t understand” her idea. “They figured there were so many thousands of colors of paint out there already, why did anyone need more?” she says.
Dejected, for awhile Gretchen just put her brand on an existing line of paints made by another company. But painters started complaining about its quality and a lack of color consistency from lot to lot.
The very survival of Devine Color was at stake. “I knew that unless someone took me on, my great concept was going to be copied by other people and no one would ever hear of me,” Gretchen says.
Fortunately, new management shortly came into Miller, and the CEO noticed a story in the local newspaper that described Gretchen’s success with the “wet-sample” idea — and her plight at not being able to secure a manufacturer. “We had a deal within 15 minutes of his meeting me,” she says. “He was able to see my vision for how to manufacture and market and distribute this paint.”
Gretchen stopped using the paint from her first manufacturer and signed a licensing deal with Miller that put her brand, her colors and her recipe for a smooth, creamy, odorless paint in 450 stores by the end of 2004. None of that would have happened, she insists, if she hadn’t made her Key Move and found the right partner in Miller Paint.
Gretchen’s Bonus Insight:
It may seem like the paint industry already has used every conceivable name to describe a shade or hue. But hoity-toity labels like “Naples Yellow” and “Stenciled Secret” don’t really tell you much. So Gretchen opts for expressive simplicity in her colors: Cabernet, Chiraz and Merlot; Maple and Honey. “We take the simplicity of everyday living and transform it into a palette for your walls,” she says. “It’s a philosophy first, and the color names come from that.”